How they run in ancient times and why it is called stadium

In this Oddity I want to be generous: not one but as many as two curiosities, albeit related to each other. Have you ever woken you up at night wondering how people ran in the Ancient Olympics? Or even if they run at all? Fair doubt, because it is not a given that running was an Olympic discipline (it was, fear not).

A little history (very quick!)

The coming Modern Olympic Games (or Olympics, for short) will be the 33rd and will be held in Paris. I say this because we have been hearing about them forever and might think they have always existed. In a sense, yes, but not in the form and with the disciplines we know, not to mention that new ones are always being added with each edition. Do you know how many editions of the Ancient Games were celebrated? As many as 292, exactly from 776 BC to 393 AD, with a few interruptions, although generally ongoing conflicts were suspended right along with them.

In contrast to the modern edition, the Ancient Games were not precisely international: in fact, at first only Greek athletes could participate, although later access was allowed to the annexed provinces as well, and then they became permanently internationalized with the expansion of the Roman Empire, so much so that some editions were even held in Rome. It is no wonder that participation did not extend to every corner of the (then known) world: at the time, traveling to the venue was significantly more difficult than it is today.

The main disciplines

What were the competitions of the ancient games? Many fewer than today but with many similarities to those of today. First of all, there were the running races: the stadion, a 192.28-meter straight race; the diaulos-a double stadion of about 380 meters; and the dolichos-that is, an endurance race of about 4,800 meters.

Then there were wrestling and boxing, and there was also the pentathlon (long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, running, wrestling), equestrian competitions, Pancratium (a mixture of wrestling and boxing), and finally our favorite, partly because it was the strangest, at least to modern eyes, and that is the oplitodromy. What was behind this strange name? An armed race, or rather: a race in which athletes competed wearing armor, sword and shield. This was a competition of strength rather than endurance, and was run by completing two and, later, four laps of stadion harnessed with about 20 kg of equipment.

And the second oddity?

I have already told you some of it, or you have already read it, perhaps without realizing it. What, in fact, was the ancestor of the modern 100 meters called? “Stadion,” that’s right. It was named after the building in which it was held, later becoming “stadium” in Ancient Rome. Curious that today the stadium is the venue for other kinds of competitions, such as soccer, rugby or football matches, and less for athletics, partly because such facilities do not always have a track as well.


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